Spikers take No. 1 spot on a tightrope

by Kent Erdahl

When Minnesota’s volleyball team travels to No. 16 Ohio State and No. 4 Penn State this weekend, the Gophers won’t be sitting back in defense of their No. 1 ranking.

The team is actually trying to put the whole ranking behind it, in order to go on the offense.

“It can only get worse (in the rankings), because we can’t get any higher,” libero Paula Gentil said. “But we know we can get a lot better as a team.”

Despite holding the top spot for three straight weeks, the Gophers said they need to get better on offense to stay on top come Monday, when the next poll comes out.

Minnesota’s defense has driven the team all season. But although the defense will continue to be its strength, it could come down to the offense on the road.

The Gophers’ attack has literally been hit-or-miss this season. Last weekend, the team recorded a .283 hitting percentage in a win against Michigan State. The next night, Minnesota’s attack fell flat, hitting only .173.

“I think they’re probably looking at us right now, thinking if they can get it by our defense they’ll win,” outside hitter Erin Martin said. “It’s really up to the middle and outside (hitters) to step it up this weekend. We’ve got to play a lot better than we have been.”

Martin said she believes the offense will step up its play because the hostile environments at Ohio State and Penn State add to the intensity.

She might be right. Last season, the Gophers swept the series over their rivals, but then again, this year’s Lions and Buckeyes are both undefeated and likely looking to add a top-ranked team to their lists of victories.

Because of the difficulty of the trip, coach Mike Hebert said he’d simply be happy with a split.

More offensive consistency would probably change that prediction, but Hebert said the team doesn’t possess the type of overwhelming hitters who correct every mistake.

“We need to become more consistent and give our hitters better swings,” Hebert said. “For us to win, everything (on offense) has to be done to perfection.”

Whether Minnesota’s attack performs efficiently, Hebert said he still expects to be in the matches because of the Gophers’ defense.

Last week, the defense made up for any offensive inconsistencies by limiting the Gophers’ three opponents to a .030 hitting percentage. On the year, Minnesota is only allowing a hitting average of .141.

“Our wins come by way of defense, and grittiness, and outlasting people,” Hebert said. “How long can we keep doing that? My hope is that we can do it all season long. We’re not the Mack truck that’s going to mow everyone down.”